UC Berkeley Botanical Garden art installation draws conservative criticism

Katherine Chen/Staff
SOL Grotto, a new installation on display at the UC Botanical Garden, is composed of glass tubes that were manufactured for Solyndra.

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A new art installation at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley has prompted backlash from right-wing commentators who say the materials used are a waste of taxpayer money.

The SOL Grotto, which is part of the garden’s Natural Discourse exhibit, was constructed from glass tubes engineered for Solyndra, the Fremont solar-panel company that filed for bankruptcy last year after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee from the federal government.

In a statement released Tuesday, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee called the loan to Solyndra a “reckless investment” and dubbed the piece “the most expensive piece of art in history,” putting it at the top of a list of high-price pieces including Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players.” Fox News commentator and UC Berkeley alumnus Greg Gutfeld also expressed anger at the piece and the history of its materials on The Five.

“Most modern art and alternative energies are a lot alike in that it’s for the believer to find value in it, because for the rest of us there is none,” he said on The Five.

The SOL Grotto, which uses 1,368 of the millions of glass tubes “destined for destruction” after Solyndra failed, “explores Solyndra’s role as a company Sh*t Out of Luck,” according to the website for the SOL Grotto’s artists, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello.  It is meant to act as “a space of solitude and close to nature where one is presented with a mediated experience of water, coolness and light,” according to the website.

Rael said he acquired the glass tubes from JIT Transportation, a shipping company that was stuck with the tubes after Solyndra folded. The owner of the shipping company provided the tubes because they would have been thrown away otherwise, Rael said.

Rael added that the point of the grotto was to encourage different perspectives and even political discussion but said that while all opinions and perspectives can be incorporated into his art, it has been taken to an extreme in an effort to swing voters.

“We intended to open up dialogue,” Rael said. “We didn’t intend to open it so wide.”

But Derek Zhou, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, said the SOL Grotto does not belong in the Botanical Gardens.

“A museum of wasted taxpayer money would seem more appropriate,” he said in a text message.

Paul Licht, director of the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens, said that the political controversy surrounding the artwork is missing the point.

“It’s really just a piece of art, and the point is to create art that fits into nature,” he said. “What we’ve basically done is recycle these materials.”